The Immigrant Card

Immigrant Farmer Workers. Photo: Licensed by on Fotolia.comAlabama farmers are getting killed by a new draconian law that has chased thousands of undocumented immigrants out of the state.

Tomato farmer Wayne Smith said he has never been able to keep a staff of American workers in his 25 years of farming.

“People in Alabama are not going to do this,” said Smith, who grows about 75 acres of tomatoes in the northeast part of the state. “They’d work one day and then just wouldn’t show up again.”

At his farm, field workers get $2 for every 25-pound box of tomatoes they fill. Skilled pickers can make anywhere from $200 to $300 a day, he said.
Unskilled workers make much less.

A crew of four Hispanics can earn about $150 each by picking 250-300 boxes of tomatoes in a day, said Jerry Spencer, of Grow Alabama, which purchases and sells locally owned produce. A crew of 25 Americans recently picked 200 boxes — giving them each $24 for the day.

It may make sense for some to sit on the couch. Unemployment benefits provide up to $265 a week while a minimum wage job, at $7.25 an hour for 40 hours, brings in $290.

This is brutal work, which is why slaves were once imported to do it, and why it’s work now done by the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder—immigrants. Just think about the numbers above—four Latinos picked a quarter to a third more tomatoes than a crew of 25 Americans. And sure, those Americans could learn to be more efficient and skilled at the work, but they won’t, because they won’t put up with that kind of abuse on their bodies (and minds, for that matter) in three-digit temperatures.

This is the same problem that Georgia farmers face, as that state cracks down on undocumented immigrants. As one Georgia farmer laments,

“You can’t find legal workers,” Horner said. “Basically they last a day or two, literally.”
The results have been brutal for farmers in Georgia:

Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, released figures from an upcoming industry-funded study Tuesday that says farmers lost at least $74.9 million in unpicked crops harvested by hand last spring and summer because they didn’t have enough labor. The farmers said they lacked 40 percent of the total work force they needed.

That estimate is on the low end:

It’s a snapshot of just a small fraction of Georgia’s farmers overall. The surveyed farmers hold just short of half the state’s overall acreage for those seven crops.
And the seven crops examined in the study accounted for just 5 percent of Georgia’s $11.3 billion in farm products from 2009, according to the agribusiness center’s last annual report.

Republicans are patting themselves on the back for forcing brown families to leave the state. What they’re realizing is that our society, for better or for worse, functions on the back of those low-wage earners. Strip them out, and there will be pain.

Kos Moulitsas

Kos Moulitsas

Markos "kos" Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.